August 25, 2021

Reading Camus in Afghanistan

By Stuart Mitchner

But the point is to live.

—Albert Camus (1913-1960)

So ends “An Absurd Reasoning,” the four-part essay Albert Camus begins by declaring, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” In his penultimate paragraph, Camus suggests, after 45 pages, that “it’s no longer even a question of judging the existential leap,” which “resumes its place amid the age-old fresco of human attitudes.” That leap “is still absurd,” for even “as it thinks it resolves the paradox, it reinstates it intact. On this score, everything resumes its place and the absurd world is reborn in all its splendor and diversity.”

Camus in Islam Qala

On July 9, 2021, a month before the Afghan government fell, the BBC reported the Taliban’s capture of the “key border town” of Islam Qala. Government officials acknowledge “the loss of one of the biggest trade gateways into Iran, generating an estimated $20 million in monthly revenue for the government.”

“Trade gateway” sounds deceptively grand. From what can be seen of Islam Qala in videos of the Taliban takeover, it’s as desolate now as it was when I spent four days stranded there in the late sixties. I was one of a group of Americans “indefinitely detained” on the edge of the 18-mile stretch of no-man’s-land between the Afghan and Iranian borders. It’s more than likely that the rifle-bearing young soldiers guarding the border and keeping a wary eye on us were the future grandfathers of the soldiers trained by or fighting “side by side” with the post-9/11 U.S. Forces.

We were hoping to catch a ride into Iran on one of the numerous west-bound oil tankers, but when we asked customs officers in a building like the one shown in the BBC video, we were told that a “Muslim holiday” had shut everything down; no one would tell us when it would be over. They had confiscated our passports and we were under house arrest, although a “kinder, gentler” phrase would be protective custody. For food and drink we depended on the whims of a shifting crew of uniformed customs office functionaries. We were the only occupants of the ground floor of a one-story building across the highway from the customs headquarters. It was a big open room covered by a faded carpet, no beds, no chairs, no tables, just us and our packs and sleeping bags. I had nothing to read but Camus’s Exile and the Kingdom in a Penguin paperback that had passed through many hands before it landed in mine, and it’s possible that I’ve read the total desolation of Islam Qala into my memory of that space, along with the similarly bleak landscapes described in Camus’s stories. The time would come when waiting without hope made reading Camus in and of itself an act of existential desperation.

The Siege of Islam Qala

… sub-apathy on the border between Afghanistan and Persia. The guards are no longer selling us food and they have locked up the well and disappeared.

—Ray Ordas, from Outlaw Visions

Ray and I had been traveling together, on and off, since the previous November. To this day, we travel the same terrain on long distance phone calls — Calcutta, Katmandu, Benares, Allahabad and the Kumbha Mehla, Srinagar and the Vale of Kashmir. Yet the place we come back to most often is this bleak, windy outpost, the gateway to nowhere. The other two survivors of the Siege of Islam Qala were Jeremy from Cleveland, who helped design the Ford Mustang, and Rich, a New Yorker who owned a pizza parlor at Lake George and had to be there in time for the summer opening and the big July 4 weekend.

We passed the first days of waiting in marathon four-way dialogues networking places, people, events, and relationships that spanned the U.S.A. and spilled all over the world. Perhaps it was the Decameron Nights tension of the situation, as if we were in quarantine from a war or a plague, but the more the wind howled outside and dust and grit of the wasteland hazed and seeded the air, the more we wondered if we were ever getting out of there.

As I read the stories in Exile and the Kingdom, my acute sense of the desolation around us began merging with the barren landscapes described by Camus. Every story, including the two not set in Algeria, evoked the sense of being marooned in a strange country you don’t belong in and are powerless to leave, with no idea when you will be allowed to move on. Rereading the same narratives I read at the time, it’s impossible to ignore the ongoing crisis of Afghanistan in turmoil, abandoned by the U.S.A., which makes our distress at Islam Qala seem, what else but absurd! The titles —
“Absurd Reasoning,” “Absurd Walls,”
“Absurd Freedom” put it well. We were living a low-grade charade of displacement, glorified refugees trapped in a purgatory of uncertainty, waiting for the truck that would set the world in motion again.

In Darkest Camus

The stories lived in the tension between Camus the pied noir (the term for French settlers born in Algeria) and Camus the Parisian, whose Algerian friends were being killed by Arab “terrorists” while the French were torturing and killing the Arab population. In “The Guest,” the title character is a prisoner, an Arab who has been handed over to the narrator, a schoolteacher, who decides not to turn him in. The first story, “The Adulterous Wife,” had already provided details of a landscape like the one surrounding us, the lines referring to the “dry earth of this measureless land scraped to the bone,” and “the cold cutting wind, crunching and cold,” the “biting wind, of these semi-polar plateaus cluttered with moraines” and “stone everywhere, in the sky full of nothing but stone-dust, rasping and cold, as on the ground, where nothing grew among the stones except dry grass.”

Also in the first story there was a bus I pictured as the colorfully painted makeshift truck-bus that had taken us on an incredibly bumpy ride from Kabul to Herat on a highway half paved by the U.S.S.R., half by the U.S.A.: “All the passengers seemed to be listening to the voice of the wind, unleashed across the endless plateaus.” There were children “wearing burnooses, whirling like tops, leaping, clapping their hands, running around the bus” that was now “going down a long street lined with low houses. The wind was still blowing, but the walls intercepted the grains of sand which had previously cut off the light. Yet the sky was still cloudy. Amidst shouts, in a great screeching of brakes, the bus stopped in front of the adobe arcades of a hotel with dirty windows.”

Reading in Reverse

Rereading the stories I read half a century ago under intensely different circumstances is a bit like reading in reverse, reading myself reading Camus, and never more than when I come to certain passages in which I sense an eerie relevance to the environment of Islam Qala, particularly including our situation sharing the big room. In “The Guest,” where Daru, the Algerian schoolmaster passes a night in the same room with the Arab prisoner, “he listened to his guest’s breathing become heavier and more regular. He listened to that breath so close to him and mused without being able to go to sleep. In this room where he had been sleeping alone for a year, this presence bothered him. But it bothered him also by imposing on him a sort of brotherhood he knew well but refused to accept in the present circumstances. Men who share the same rooms, soldiers or prisoners, develop a strange alliance as if, having cast off their armor with their clothing, they fraternized every evening, over and above their differences, in the ancient community of dream and fatigue.”

How great is Camus, with that last line the equivalent of an existential leap. After one night in the “ancient community,” the schoolmaster does the human thing, gives the prisoner food and money and points him in the safest direction. When Daru gets home, a message has been chalked on the blackboard: “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.” The story ends with the teacher looking at “the sky, the plateau, and the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.” And after that leap everything resumes its place in an absurd universe.

A Sky Like Texas

Ray describes our departure in Outlaw Visions: “Finally there was an Afghan military inspection of the post and they had to get us out of there. They stopped a big American tanker truck carrying oil and made the driver take us across.” Ray’s vision of the place should help offset the bleakness of the one I filtered through Camus: “The sky was like Texas — you could see your shadow by the stars. We used to do skits outdoors at night. The guy who owned the pizza parlor on Lake George did what it was like to be in the pizza stand on the 4th of July. The designer of the Ford Mustang sang ‘Running Bear Loved Little White Dove.’ 6 ft. 6, absolutely calm, standing perfectly straight.”

And so once again “the absurd world is reborn in all its splendor and diversity.”